Awake to the possibility of sleep

Boy, fixing overtired sure is tough. --@mhoye

I want to say something about sleep.  I've been thinking a lot about it lately in the context of my students, who are in the middle of final assignments and exams.  Watching them work on less and less sleep as the term progresses, I'm struck by how little we speak about sleep in ways that aren't flippant.  I was a student once upon a time, and I did my share of all-nighters.

As I've thought about sleep, I've been going back to the two traditions that inform so much of my thinking--the biblical and philosophical.  I've been thinking about sleep as an aspect of the human condition, and therefore its lack as a loss of ones' own humanity and the potential to be fully human.

In On Sleep and Sleeplessness, Aristotle calls sleep a "privation of waking."  It is, as the title suggests, the other side of wakefulness, that this balance of opposites presents itself in the world through us.  He goes on to say that "there is no animal which is always awake or always asleep, but that both these affectations belong [alternately] to the same animals."  For Aristotle, sleep is not simply the cost of being awake, but the other side of "sense-perception," where being awake is perceiving with the senses, and being asleep is the freedom from the senses.

In this we begin to see some of the negative associations our culture has with sleep.  We are terrified to be alone.  We value spectacle over substance.  We need to be (seen to be) doing things.  Sleep is not the other side of wakefulness.  Sleep is the failure to be awake.

I've watched the lack of sleep destroy people.  I've seen people become less of themselves by being more of what they think they are.  I've seen the lack of sleep become a void large enough to crawl in and close over you.  And I've seen the opposite.  I've watched countless people sleep their lives away.  I've seen laziness get in the way of living.

I was trying to think about moments of sleep in the Bible, and what they mean.  I was amazed at how many I could think of without even trying.  I've not done a proper accounting, but I'm sure some academic or theologian has kept score and could keep you entertained for hours with them all.  But I'm interested in two moments of sleep that involve Jesus.

The first comes in Mark 4:

And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?"
Lay this against the second, from Matthew 26:
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me."  Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will."  Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?" he asked Peter. "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak."  He went away a second time and prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done."  When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.  Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.  Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!"
Can we resolve this into a coherent meaning of sleep?  Is sleep faithful or sinful?  If we look at this question in the mirror that divides wakefulness and sleep, we see how ridiculous it is: that action of wakefulness is always open to both sin and faith, which is to say, it is neither in and of itself.  Sleep is subject to the same range as wakefulness; we just don't apply the same rigorousness in our thinking about it.  What we can say from these two contradictory accounts is that sleep, like wakefulness, is a landscape on which to act.  It is not what we do, but where we do.  If we look to the space made available by both wakefulness and sleep we will encounter man, whatever he may do.

There are implications to this thinking.  As a professor, I have the power to make decisions on behalf of my students.  I can overvalue wakefulness, and force them to work beyond their limits.  I can strictly enforce deadlines, wave away stories of sickness and being tired.  I can take the view that sleep is simply a lack of motivation.  But in doing so I must come to terms with the fact that I will never have the chance to fully encounter them.  If sleep is the other side of wakefulness, the balance that reveals itself through being human, what do I miss in only looking for an experience of the one without the other?

As such I make an explicit commitment tonight, which is consistent with my actions to date, but never before articulated: just as I will not tolerate laziness, I will not force on my students an expectation that they go without sleep in order to do work for me.  I will instead value good work, and know that good work only comes from being fully human, which is to say, from being properly awake and asleep.

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